Sticking with Kebabs

Since ancient times, the mouthwatering morsels have been a hot item.

June 22, 2005|By Christianna McCausland | Christianna McCausland,Special to the Sun

For more than 3,000 years, kebabs have been a mainstay in cuisine in almost every culture from Japan to the Middle East. Here in the United States, this simple dish of meat, chicken, fish, vegetables or fruit skewered onto a stick is an easy alternative for summer barbecues and quick family suppers.

"Stick meat was probably the first culinary innovation after the basic notion of cooking stuff over fire," says Steven Raichlen, author of How to Grill, The Barbecue Bible and BBQ USA and host of Barbecue University on Public Broadcasting Service. "Virtually every grilling culture in the world has some form of kebab, from the Turkish shish kebab to Indonesia satay to French brochettes. It really is universal."

The number of accepted spellings for kebab -- or kabob or cabob -- speaks to the global reach of the skewer. The origin of the first kebab is generally traced back to the ancient Middle East (in Turkish, sis means skewer and kebab means roasted meat). In an area where fuel was scarce, the uniformly cut, small chunks of meat cooked quickly, while marinades kept the meat tender.

At the Kabob Hut in Towson, owner James Jadali makes his kebabs using the recipes his family brought from Iran. It's a recipe that has changed little in several thousand years.

"The story of the kebab is 3,000 years old," he says. "The king made the kebab for the people several times a year on special occasions, like to celebrate the Persian New Year."

While kebabs are now more like fast food in the Middle East than special-occasion fare, Jadali says that the use of Persian spices in the marinade, such as saffron and sumac, are key to preserving the flavors of those ancient festivities.

In his small restaurant, Jadali has perfected his technique. The meat -- lamb, chicken or beef -- is marinated fresh each day and threaded onto metal skewers. It is cooked slowly over a grill made of ceramic tiles that allows the meat to cook evenly without being flavored by an open flame.

"I use steel skewers because they catch the heat very fast," he says, noting that the heat from the metal skewers helps the meat cook evenly.

The same qualities that made kebabs appealing to nomadic tribes and Persian partygoers thousands of years ago make them appealing in today's kitchen. Kebabs are delicious, quick and healthful -- literally a meal on a stick.

"It's a healthy food with no fat," says Jadali of the kebab's popularity. "All the meat is fresh and has little fat or oil on it so it is good for health."

To prepare a good kebab, begin with pieces of meat and vegetables that are cut to about the same size to ensure even cooking (hard vegetables like potatoes can be parboiled for faster grilling), and if using fish, use varieties that are firm-fleshed such as tuna or shellfish.

If using bamboo skewers, it may help to soak them in water or wrap the exposed tips with tin foil to keep them from catching fire on the grill. If using metal skewers, invest in those with flat sides so that when the kebab is turned, the meat and vegetables do not spin. Or use two-pronged skewers commonly used in Asia. Lightly rubbing the skewer with cooking oil may help keep the meat from sticking to the stick.

One common problem with kebabs is overcooking. "When we Americans make shish kebab, you tend to alternate beef or lamb with, say, plum tomatoes, cubes of peppers, mushrooms, so they look pretty," says grill master Raichlen.

"But if you think about it, all those ingredients cook at a different rate. What the Turks do is put all their peppers on one skewer and all their onions on another skewer and all their lamb on another skewer, and they cook them separately so that each can be left on for the amount of time you need."

The variety of kebabs is limited only by the imagination of the cook. There are literally thousands of kebab creations to liven up any backyard summer gathering. While some may seek out the traditional delicacies from Iran, Turkey and parts of Asia, almost anything can be skewered and grilled, broiled or even baked in the oven.

Typically kebab meat is marinated before grilling to keep it juicy, but spice rubs and herbs are also part of the kebab tradition. Raichlen offers contemporary suggestions for adding flavor, such as placing fresh mint leaves between lamb on a skewer or skewering shrimp with basil leaves and sun-dried tomatoes.

Meat can even be threaded on branches of herbs, like rosemary. "Almost anything can be stuck on a stick and grilled," says Raichlen.

Cookbook author Alamelu Vairavan, a health-care professional whose passion is healthful cooking, reinvented the traditional Indian kebab into a more healthful incarnation that is perfect for summertime grilling. Vairavan says that kebabs are popular in Northern India, where meat is prevalent. In her books The Art of South Indian Cooking and Healthy South Indian Cooking, she translated the kebab technique into a version that encompasses the vegetables, legumes and spices of South India.

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